The UN General Assembly (UNGA) observes December 10 as Human Rights Day to draw attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — offering nations like India, a chance to introspect about their compliance with international conventions.
The Constitution enables Indian citizens to directly approach high courts and the Supreme Court for enforcing their fundamental rights. Human rights were to be strengthened by the Protection of Human Rights Act (1993), which enabled complaints of human rights violations—including those of socio-economic rights such as right to education—to be made directly to the National and State Human Rights Commissions established by the Act.
The Act empowers Commissions to hear complaints, take cognisance suo motu and investigate violations which come to their notice. The reality, however, is that these Commissions are handicapped since they can only “recommend” to the government to pay compensation to victims and to consider disciplinary proceedings against errant officers. The Commissions do not have the power to issue binding directions. State governments can thus simply disregard observations of the Commissions with impunity.
The State Commissions also suffer from the problem of unfilled vacancies. The Himachal Pradesh and Manipur Commissions have not had chairpersons since 2005 and 2010, respectively. Several other states are functioning with less than the mandated three members in the Commissions. Since the appointment committee includes the Leader of Opposition in states, the entire political class is to be blamed for unfilled vacancies. The State Commissions’ ability to carry out investigations has also been hampered because many states have not deputed IG rank police officers to assist the Commissions. Similarly, the Maharashtra Commission has not prepared annual reports for more than 10 years despite the mandate to table reports before the legislature each year.
The NHRC has fared better by comparison. It has passed several important orders and has not shied away from sensitive matters like the Gujarat riots. It does not have the problem of vacancies, but has a staggering 42,012 pending cases as of October 2014. In 2005, the NHRC and SHRCs resolved unanimously that the latter should be structurally and financially independent, in conformity with the “Paris Principles” endorsed by the UNGA. That remains a pipe dream. It is the need of the hour that SHRCs be made effective with adequate resources and timely appointment of members. Legislative amendments to make Commissions’ directives binding must also be considered.
Sagar Godbole is a law student
The views expressed by the author are personal